By PAULINE ARRILLAGA, Associated Press
It's the mantra we will hear endlessly in the coming weeks: Americans face a "stark choice" come November. It is a choice, as President Barack Obama has said repeatedly, "between two fundamentally different visions" for our country. Or as newly anointed Republican nominee Mitt Romney has said from the stump, "President Obama's vision is very different — and deeply flawed."
It may all sound like the kind of rhetoric we hear every four years. But this year, analysts, polls and even the politicians themselves keep telling us: The "visions" really are more acutely divergent because our differences as Americans are, too.
So how do these opposing world views look through the eyes of the voters who will choose?
Look no further than a neighborhood Chick-fil-A restaurant to see how our contrary notions about just one topic — gay marriage — played out this summer. Perhaps you were one who stood in line to buy a sandwich in support of the chain whose president spoke out against same-sex marriage. Or, rather, you may have reposted a picture that made the rounds on Facebook comparing those protests to others, long ago, against school integration and "race mixing" with a tag line that jeered, "Imagine how stupid you are going to look in 40 years."
On this and so many other issues this election year, it seems harder to find that middle-ground gray when our debates seem so very black or white.
It's true that partisan polarization on basic policy questions is at its highest point in 25 years, according to the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. Put simply, where once Americans who call themselves "Republican" or "Democrat" saw more eye-to-eye on issues such as the environment or government's role in helping the poor, their viewpoints are far more at odds. The largest divide now centers on the scope and role of government.
That makes for "a world of difference" between the parties, the candidates and their ideas, says political scientist William Galston, a Brookings Institution fellow studying the implications of this polarization. "It's not just in the numbers" of where each side would spend, cut or tax. "It's also in the underlying theories of how the world works and what would cure the problems that ail us," he says. "If the voters don't see that now, I think by the end of this election they will."
Many do see it. And for them these two visions aren't merely about whether the health care law should stay or go, or whether abortion should remain legal or not, or whether taxes should be reduced for all or raised for the richest. It's about the underlying philosophies upon which they've built their own lives and that they, therefore, want to see reflected in their government and, yes, in their president.
Rita Ferrandino of Sarasota, Fla., knows clearly the kind of America she wants to live in: A nation where everyone gets a place at the table and a chance to succeed, regardless of race, creed or how much money is in your wallet. She is a first-generation American born to Italian immigrants — her father was a barber, her mother a bookkeeper — and she recalls fondly growing up in a central Pennsylvania immigrant town where everyone took care of each other.
If her parents couldn't afford to buy her a new dress, a neighbor would be ready with a hand-me-down. The Catholic church she grew up in taught her about family values but also about social justice — "helping your brother," she remembers.
Ferrandino made her way through college on a scholarship and, now in her 40s, is the principal of a private equity investment firm as well as a single mother and chair of her county Democratic Party. In short, she says: "I understand my fiscal responsibility. I also more fundamentally understand my social responsibility."
She is an Obama supporter who firmly believes that the two visions offered by the candidates are just as stark as they say they are.
For her it comes down to this: "It's about: Together, we can create more."
In Thornton, Colo., Navy veteran Tony Hake sees things far differently. "Americans," he says, "are the type of people who can do well on our own. We don't always need people helping us. You want to help us? Get out of our way."
Hake, 43, is a self-described staunch conservative who knows that many of his beliefs flow from those of his father, also a military veteran and an ex-Denver police officer.